When Jessica Van de Kemp was in high school in Bradford West Gwillimbury, there were few supports for the LGBTQ community.
As a young woman trying to figure out her bisexuality, she grew up to become passionate about using the arts to help marginalized people celebrate who they are.
Just this week, she was nominated by Fierte Simcoe Pride for Person of the Year in its Simcoe County Pride Awards.
“I do spoken word and am a poet. I go into schools, especially rural ones like (Bradford). I use that to empower everyone but also those who have been marginalized or erased,” Van de Kemp said.
“It’s to try to be someone who … can help people figure out their identity. I want to be that person who can help other people be themselves” in a safe, supportive, caring environment.
The 30 year old teacher and University of Waterloo PhD candidate also researches gender stereotypes in drama TV, such as Criminal Minds or CSI, and how strong female characters are made to look more like victims than empowered women.
Van de Kemp said a lot has changed in BWG over the years, including increased supports and events for the LGBTQ community.
It was not a “mean” town, she added, but there are more resources available now.
Pointing to the creation of the BWG Diversity Action Group and Bradford Women’s+ Group, and inclusive programming at the BWG Public Library, Van de Kemp said she hopes to see families and society become more accepting.
“Just having access to more of those events (and) groups has helped our community feel more supported,” she said.
Bradford Women’s+ Group, which hosts regular workshops for women to learn about a variety of meaningful issues, was also nominated for Organization of the Year in the Simcoe Pride awards.
Diveristy and inclusion is a significant element of the group, which includes the plus symbol in its name to welcome all women, including trans and non-binary.
The organization aims to create a safe space to normalize conversations about gender and sexuality, as well as other topics such as finance and health.
“It’s really humbling. It’s a huge honour (to be nominated),” said Jennifer Lloyd, a co-founder of the Bradford Women’s+ Group. “We’re in the same category as The Gilbert Centre in Barrie,” which is dedicated to the health and wellbeing of the LGBTQ community and people living with HIV.
Being inclusive to the LGBTQ community was something the Bradford Women’s+ Group wanted to be since its inception, said co-founder Jes Corbett.
“There’s a lot of people in our community who identify as trans and non-binary. It’s not just about male and female,” she said, noting creating a safe and non-judgmental space is “part of our community commitment.”
Corbett and Lloyd are lifelong residents of BWG and said they have noticed increased visibility of the LGBTQ community — and its allies — locally.
“People are becoming more informed,” said Lloyd. “The women (who attend our sessions) come with such open minds and open hearts.”
The Simcoe County Pride Awards — winners to be announced at an Aug. 10 gala — recognize gender- and sexually-diverse individuals, allies, organizations, and inclusive businesses.
The Town of BWG was nominated in the Community of the Year category last year but lost to Orillia. This year, the Town of Innisfil and the City of Barrie are nominated in that category.
For the full list of nominees, visit the Fierté Simcoe Pride website.